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Coronavirus struck Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. Will Latinos strike back with their votes?

Slowly, the strength that drained from Irene Morales’ body in her summer battle with Covid-19 is returning. What she won’t get back are her brother, her sister, her father and her aunt, all taken as the coronavirus has swept through Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

The erasure of Morales’ family and Covid-19’s ruthlessness also wiped away her indecision about the presidential candidates. Her vote will pay respect to her family; she’ll be voting for Joe Biden, she said.

Speaking of President Donald Trump, Morales, 75, of Rio Grande City in Starr County, said: “It’s a little disappointing when I hear him say: ‘Don’t be afraid of Covid. Nothing has happened.’ Well, thank God. How lucky for him that he didn’t suffer. … Why have so many other people died? This the true Covid.”

Texas opened early voting Tuesday. Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs announced 16.9 million people had registered to vote—up 1.8 million from 2016, as of the latest numbers. In the four Rio Grande Valley counties — Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy —registrations are up at least a combined 76,770.

But the numbers looming large in this part of the state are those that tell the story of the toll of the coronavirus.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

The four core counties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley had logged nearly 70,000 coronavirus cases by Monday; nearly 3,000 people had died. Nearby Webb County, home to Laredo, and Zapata County, both on the border, added more than 14,700 more cases and 303 more deaths.

“There is not one person in Hidalgo County that hasn’t been affected by this horrible virus,” Hidalgo County Democratic chair Norma Ramirez said. That includes her. The virus killed Sergio Muñoz Sr., a former state legislator who was the county party’s vice chair, in July.

IMAGE: Irene Morales (Courtesy Irene Morales)
IMAGE: Irene Morales (Courtesy Irene Morales)

For Democrats to tip the election in Texas — the last Democratic presidential nominee to win the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976 — they’ll need improved turnout and more voters from the state’s almost all-Latino lower Rio Grande Valley and parts of South Texas. The counties are Democratic strongholds.

Community groups working to register and turn out voters, mostly through phone calls and texts, but also with some door-to-door work, say the virus’ devastation has become a motivator. They said Latinos are recognizing not only that their community has been devastated by the disease, but also that the years of inequities they have put up with worsened the impact of the coronavirus in the region.

Unemployment numbers here rose to levels not recorded since before 2000. Vehicle and foot traffic on the international bridges — the area’s economic engine — has been curtailed, hitting the border cities’ retail sectors that profit from Mexican shoppers.

The area already is far poorer than other parts of the state. It contends with high prevalences of diabetes and obesity, and about 30 percent of adults in three of the counties don’t have health insurance.